‘Doorway to Death’ and Other Lofty Achievements in Cinema
What studio saw the most films shot on its sound stages during the 20th century: Paramount? Universal? 20th Century Fox? Warner Bros.?
Wrong every time. It was the humble Coronet Studio in fashionable Glenview, Ill., where hundreds of “social guidance” films were shot during the 1950s with the aim of showing America’s teens how to become well-behaved, productive and happy citizens of a healthy society.
Conceived and designed to be shown in schools, the vignettes, dubbed “mental hygiene” films by author and historian Ken Smith, were no less than “social engineering aimed at changing the behavior of a whole generation of kids,” he says.
He has curated the first-of-its-kind, 70-film retrospective “Mental Hygiene: Social Guidance Films 1945-1970" at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, which mirrors his similarly titled book (Blast Books). It has been a huge success for the museum, selling out almost all of its screenings.
Smith said he became interested in the seemingly hokey films while working at the cable network Comedy Central, which occasionally uses snippets of them in its programming.
“The more I watched them, the more fascinated I became, because I realized they weren’t just funny, there was a lot of dark, strange stuff, and there was a larger story to it. Mental hygiene films were popular because they showed life not as it was but as their adult creators wanted it to be.”
Hopelessly Dated or Tellingly Relevant?
With titles ranging from “Getting Along With Parents,” “How to Keep a Job” and “It’s Wonderful Being a Girl” to the more lurid “Doorway to Death” and “The Last Date,” Smith said he understands people’s inclination to dismiss them as hopelessly dated, cheaply shot and often poorly acted time capsules.
The postwar 1950s and early ‘60s, with a sensibility of fear and conformity and hallmarks of the bomb, the Cold War and McCarthyism, is sharply reflected in the films. “They’re hokey and, even if the message is not, the way they’re made is so cheesy and so transparent,” he said.
Even as late as 1968, “Marijuana” featured Sonny Bono, of all people, droning on, decked out in a lame suit and looking and sounding very stoned himself.
“But I always ask audiences, ‘How many of you have a giant company logo on your jacket or your T-shirt? You think brainwashing is gone? You think you’re not susceptible to this?’ ” Smith said. “We’ve gotten more sophisticated, but so have the people who are trying to put messages into our heads.”
As examples, he cites McDonalds’ sponsorship of school lunch programs and Channel One being beamed into classrooms. “That’s much more insidious and sinister to me than these films ever were, because they were made with the best intentions. They cared about kids.”
Smith posits that corporations now control our mental hygiene. “Look what’s happened to the Internet in the last five years. It’s gone from being the information superhighway to e-commerce. It’s become just another way for us to shop.”
He divides the 3,000 or so films, fewer than half of which survive, into basic categories such as dating, drugs, fitting in, cautionary tales, bloody highways and sex education. If fitting in and dating are most responsible for the genre’s reputation as laughably dated, the road safety and cautionary tales could probably satisfy the most hardened, bloodthirsty modern teen sporting a skateboard and “I Love Satan” T-shirt.
Most of the films run 10 to 15 minutes, but a few stretch over half an hour. “There were no guidelines,” Smith said. “That’s why they’re so weird in many respects. . . . They covered everything from homosexuality to menstruation to sex hygiene.”
‘Teenagers Became the Scapegoat’
“It’s Up to You,” a 1959 production ostensibly about safety in boys’ shop classes, featured four minutes of bloody, gruesome actual eye surgery footage, all in tight close-up.
“It wasn’t made to impress film festival judges; it was made to make its audiences throw up. It still does,” Smith writes in his book. Purportedly about responsibility for safety, Smith says the film’s hidden message is “workman’s comp? Don’t be ridiculous. It was all your fault!”
Nowhere is this underlying theme more evident than in the highway safety, or “bloody highways” films, many of which incorporated scenes and corpses from real highway fatalities.
From “Safety or Slaughter” to “Mechanized Death,” some of the films featured footage of blood-splattered accident victims with their faces ripped off and audio of the dying. Few who see them forget them, and no one giggles through these gore fests.
Many of the drug films took a similar approach, such as 1951’s “Drug Addiction,” in which good boy Marty experiments with marijuana and ends up drinking soda from a broken bottle, cutting his mouth to bloody ribbons while laughing maniacally.
“Educators were appalled, but they used them because highway fatalities kept rising. And teenagers became branded as this sort of menace on the road,” Smith said of the gore films. Never mind that “Detroit was cranking out these monster engines in cars with no safety devices, the roads were bad and not designed for high speeds and there were more people driving. Of course you’re going to have more deaths,” he said.
“Teenagers became the scapegoat, reflecting back on this general fear of young people, which we still have today.”
Delinquency films also bore this hallmark.
“The most frightening image in all delinquency films was that of normal-looking white kids who have enjoyed all the benefits of free enterprise and suburbia throwing it contemptuously back in adult faces,” Smith writes.
Fast-forward 50 years and he could be describing 1999’s Columbine High School shootings. “They’re more apropos than people might expect,” he mused.
But for all his obvious affection for these artifacts, in the end Smith says the films likely did more harm than good. “By setting an artificial ideal . . . you project this as the right way to be, and, of course, there is no right way to be.
“Kids would watch them and learn that being selfish, arrogant, undemocratic or delinquent would make them unhappy or, depending on the producer, dead,” he writes. “Conversely, those who played by the rules and maintained the status quo were rewarded with popularity, fun and a life span that extended into their 20s.”
“Shy Guy” (1947) depicts a father telling his social outcast son, played by a young Dick York of “Bewitched” fame, to “pick out the most popular boys and girls at school and keep an eye on them.”
Smith likens these films to the Nazis’ use of film in classrooms to influence the behavior of young Germans in the 1930s, which he said inspired Coronet Studios founder David Smart. But he tempers the analogy by saying the films had “well-intentioned democratic purposes” and were championed by progressive academics, not reactionary moralizers.
Other studios filled other niches: Centron in Lawrence, Kan., like Coronet far from the glamour of Hollywood, produced films that strained to include troubled teens with dark thoughts and maladjusted lives, while producer Sid Davis made his mark with blood-and-guts highway and drug films.
In the end, Smith says, social guidance films fell victim to changing times. “In the late 1940s and 1950s, when kids wanted to conform, they were effective. In the late 1960s, when kids didn’t, they were not.”
But they continue to inspire some, including independent filmmakers who in the 1980s made “Whatever Happened to Susan Jane?,” updating the saga of Susan Jane Smith, the heroine of 1951’s “The Outsider,” who weeps “I just don’t fit it.”
They decided she moved to San Francisco, called herself “Suejanna” and spent her days knocking back cappuccinos with a bunch of drag queens in the gay neighborhood, the Castro.
So Susan Jane turned out just fine, after all.